San Francisco Diaries: Aruna dreams of kimchi

Aruna Lee is the founder of San Francisco-based Volcano Kimchi, whose organic kimchi and sauces are made in her “Fermentation Lab” in the Dogpatch. Aruna grew up in a Buddhist monastery in Korea, where every meal included an assortment of kimchi.

When she arrived in San Francisco in 2001, doing anything related to food was the furthest thing from her mind as she settled into her new chapter. In this episode, Aruna shares the story of how she eventually came back to food, building her small business in a tough town with her childhood memories as inspiration.

Listen to her story:

You can find Volcano kimchi and sauces at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market, Clement Street Farmer’s Market, Good Eggs, Rainbow Grocery, and more.

We are always looking for stories of people who make San Francisco the beautiful city it is today. If you have a story to share or someone to nominate, email us at muni.diaries.sf@gmail.com.

Transcript

I’ve been having this dream lately. I’m stuck on a cliff, and I can’t figure out how to get down. In my dream, I’m anxious and frustrated. 

Someone told me that you can interpret your dreams by looking at the state of your mind — when you’re having the dream. 

I guess in some ways… the anxiety and frustration of being stuck – it feels a lot like where I am. Or where I was, until recently.

One of my earliest memories is from when I was about 7 or 8 years old. I was sitting in my room. It was winter, and cold. The kind of bone-chilling cold you experience in Korea. 

There was snow, and everything outside was frozen. 

I grew up in a Buddhist temple in the very southern part of South Korea. 

The name of the temple is Yaksuam, which means, “Medicine Water Temple.” It’s still there today. On the temple grounds, there’s a spring that runs cold all year round, and that’s where the temple gets its name. 

That night I was sitting in my room craving a snack. 

Now — what kind of snacks does a Korean Buddhist temple leave lying around for a little kid? Yeah, you guessed it. Kimchi!

Go to any Korean temple and you’ll find crock pots filled with all kinds of fermenting goodies, from cabbage to soy sauce to plums and other fruits and vegetables. 

The pots are kept outside, where the freezing winters provide natural refrigeration, while in summer the clay pots keep the kimchi cool. 

Well, in some of those jars you’ll also find fermented radishes. And that was what I was craving. 

You remember, when you were a kid, and you just wanted this one thing so bad?

For me, all I had to do was slide open the temple door, tiptoe out into the snow, take the lid off the pot as quietly as I could, and pull out a juicy piece of radish kimchi. 

It was pure joy. 

Even today, I can still feel the icy kimchi juice dripping down my chin. I can taste the radish – it’s sour, spicy, and salty flavors filling my mouth at the same time. And of course…I still remember the crunch. It was so, so satisfying. 

I was ordained as a Buddhist nun after I graduated high school. I shaved my head, spent four years in seminary school studying the texts, rituals and learning how to be a nun. 

(Korea actually is one of only two countries in East Asia that officially ordains women in the Buddhist tradition. The other is Taiwan.) 

Then I spent the next 10 years living in different monasteries. It feels like a lifetime ago. 

I never thought I would do anything else. I definitely never imagined that I’d be working with food. 

I hated being in the kitchen. 

By the time I was in my early twenties, food was just something that kept me going. 

I was surrounded by some of the most amazing food that the world has to offer. If you’ve never had Korean temple food, you really should. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but Korean temple food is as simple as it is sublime. 

But at the time, I didn’t really care. 

Then, in late 2001 – I remember it was just a couple of months after 9/11 – I arrived in San Francisco.  

It’s a long story but the short version is that I met someone while traveling in India. I left the temple, got married, had a kid, and found work. I was a new mom, with a family to help feed, and so, really for the first time in my life, I started cooking, and cooking, and cooking. 

One of my early inspirations was actually Jaques Pepin, the French Chef. He was so easy going and charming on screen. His recipes were simple, fresh, tasty. I felt inspired. I watched his show every week on PBS. 

People liked my cooking… or at least that’s what they told me. I cooked for family and friends. And I just sort of naturally started to make the dishes I grew up eating. All kinds of Korean small plates — called banchan in Korean. I’d sauteé, boil, fry, steam… you name it. 

Korean food hadn’t been “discovered” yet. Most people knew about Korean barbecue. There were a couple of popular spots in the city. But Korean temple food is different. It’s vegetarian, for starters. And it’s more subtle, with a lot of the flavor coming from fermentation.  

But cooking wasn’t the only thing I did. When I first got to San Francisco I spent weeks wandering around the Haight Ashbury. I loved the neighborhood. It was so open, so different. I took ESL classes at John Adams and then I would go down to the Haight and just walk around. 

Eventually, I started working for a nonprofit that supported ethnic media. I worked with the Korean media mainly, but also with Black, Latino and other Asian media. 

It was an amazing experience. It opened my eyes – I was so new to this country, and through my work I was able to connect with all these different communities in the Bay Area. 

I also made a lot of friends. And one of them is Eugenia of Muni Diaries fame.

Unfortunately, the nonprofit lost its funding. It was a few years after the financial crisis in 2008. Eventually I lost my job. 

It was such a blow. I had never been fired before. Of course, I had also never really had a job before either. So I had to figure out what to do next. And the only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to work for myself. 

So…I began to make kimchi. 

I began experimenting with different recipes and techniques. I watched lots of Korean Youtube videos. And I read every book I could find on fermentation. I remember there were literally jars of fermenting stuff everywhere in our house back then. 

Eventually I took a batch into Rainbow Grocery. I love Rainbow. They opened the doors to me. I had created a simple logo from a drawing my son did, put together a basic label, and brought some jars of my vegan cabbage kimchi in to see if they would be interested. And they were! They were my first buyer. 

I remember seeing my product there for the first time. Suddenly it felt possible, like, I could do this. I could create a company. 

…and the rest as they say is history. 

I launched Volcano Kimchi in 2015 and since then I’ve been fermenting like crazy trying to perfect my technique and grow the business. 

And it has been an amazing journey. After Rainbow took on my product, I started selling my kimchi at the Farmer’s Market in San Francisco, which has sort of become like my church here. It’s my community, it’s where I go to connect, to be inspired and to try out new ideas. I’ve literally fed thousands of people at the farmer’s market with my kimchi. 

I also found a permanent home for the business. From the beginning I had been working from a shared commercial kitchen. But at the start of the pandemic I found this amazing location that had just become available. 

It’s in the Dog Patch neighborhood. It’s big, it has tall ceilings and huge windows — I can see the entire Bay when I make my kimchi.

And I have a team now – an amazing group of mostly immigrant women. They are full of creative energy and passion. 

So yes, things have begun to move. I’m still small, tiny really. But I can feel the momentum. We’re actually about to launch a new product that I believe will turn my little fermentation family into something much more substantial. 

I won’t bore you with the details, but I’m excited. And nervous. I can see the potential, and the opportunity. It’s like that radish kimchi in the pot, just on the other side of the temple door. 

I had the same dream the other night. 

I was still on that cliff. And I was feeling nervous, and anxious. 

But this time was different. I knew I was dreaming. In THIS dream, I remembered that I’ve been here before. So I made a decision. I let go, spread my arms and flew. 

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